Tips for a Sober Thanksgiving in 2020

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How to Enjoy a Sober Thanksgiving: Your 20 Practical Tips

For the thousands upon thousands of people in recovery right now from substance addiction, especially alcohol use disorder (AUD), their only wish this November 26 is a simple one – a sober Thanksgiving. The annual Thanksgiving family feast, a day that should be set aside every year for love, peace, and thankful celebration of nature’s bountiful harvest, is very nearly upon us.

However, for many, and especially those in recovery, it’s actually more akin to another infamous day in U.S. history – “Custer’s Last Stand,” and with you as the valiant one whose sobriety this time around is on the line. Yet it’s not the fear of being scalped in the midst of a frantic and bloody battle with close relatives and neighbors that’s the biggest worry – it’s that very real and understandable fear of hard-won sobriety being lost.

staying sober on thanksgiving 2020

Alcohol: The Regularly Invited Guest at U.S. Family Celebrations

Nowadays, Thanksgiving is so much more than a large family meal on a Thursday evening. The “thankful celebration of nature’s bountiful harvest” now tends to last from the day before the Thursday (affectionately now known as “Blackout Wednesday” or “Drinksgiving,” for obvious reasons) right through to the Sunday evening. In many U.S. households, it’s 5 days of “furious feasting” there to be enjoyed – otherwise, and more commonly, known as binge drinking. In the majority of “Western cultured” countries, and the U.S. in no exception, alcohol is a regular and accepted feature of most celebratory occasions. In fact, in a recent U.S. study into family/social celebrations and alcohol use, 49% of respondents acknowledged that they drink during these family events to make their loved ones (yes, their family) simply more tolerable. When that same question was put to people whose families frequently or always drink together, that number rose to 63% (nearly two-thirds). Based on those statistics alone, the study’s authors concluded that a sizable number of people use alcohol solely as a coping mechanism to make it through the holidays in a bearable way. And, of course, with all this copious, inflammatory alcohol flying around, there’s the distinct possibility that, for some, Thanksgiving will turn out to be nothing more than a raging dumpster fire instead.

The Statistics Tell The U.S. Thanksgiving Story

Here’s another couple of statistics for you. An estimated 15% of the nation’s population will still be traveling this year (the now infamous, never-to-be-forgotten, coronavirus-disrupted 2020) – that’s around 50 million people – and the vast majority will be headed out onto roads that are the 3rd most dangerous of the U.S. calendar, thanks predominantly to that regularly invited guest at family functions – alcohol.

Q. Why is Thanksgiving “the 3rd most dangerous day for driving of the U.S. calendar”?

A multifaceted answer, but an easy one, nonethelessAlcohol, binge drinking, and the family car.

According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), a nonprofit organization in the U.S., Canada and Brazil raising awareness about drunk and drugged driving, the Thanksgiving holiday actually results in more fatal alcohol-fueled accidents than the Christmas holiday.

Furthermore, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, the average U.S. citizen is now putting their holiday alcohol consumption into top gear – a quarter of the $49-billion-a-year distilled spirits industry’s profits come from the single month between Thanksgiving and the New Year. Such is the temptation to drink excessively during holiday weekends, even people who are only mild or moderate consumers of alcohol tend to increase their drinking consumption considerably.

Unfortunately, the research study that discovered this also noted that most U.S. citizens have no idea what high-risk drinking even looks like

Thanksgiving 2020: Congregating with COVID-19

Now that we’ve mentioned the English language’s new “c-word” – coronavirus – many U.S. health officials are concerned their pre-Thanksgiving warnings have gone unheard or are just plain being ignored. In fact, 3 million people are reported to have already traveled through US airports from Friday through to Sunday.

Dr Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious diseases expert, commented to mainstream media that people in airports “are going to get us into even more trouble than we’re in right now“.

A more immediate response comes from Dr. Cleavon Gilman, an emergency medical physician and an advocate for COVID-19 awareness right here in Arizona, who tweeted: “Our pleas for help have fallen on selfish deaf ears.” Dr. Gilman’s project #COVIDDeaths honors and helps track people who’ve died from the coronavirus, and to wake people up to their duty as fellow citizens to take precautions like wearing a mask

A sobering thought (honestly, no pun intended) when you consider that:

  • 96% of U.S. families gather every year for their Thanksgiving feast, and
  • 28% of these (over a quarter) will have more than 12 people at the table

For those who are thinking “But my grandparents/parents are really old – it might be our last Thanksgiving together,” think again – it probably will be if COVID-19 makes it to the table too.

However, the aim of this article is not to say whether sitting around the family dinner table for Thanksgiving this year is the right or wrong thing to do (we’ll leave that social and moral conundrum to others). Instead, the aim of this article is to provide “20 Practical Tips” for those in addiction recovery who will be sitting around that table when the wine, beer and spirits (and whatever else) starts making its way around too.

Note: In fact, when you take a moment of quiet reflection, there is the mind-blowingly obvious “tip” for staying sober during Thanksgiving: Citing coronavirus concerns, just don’t go… Lastly, the 20 Practical Tips featured below, however, do assume your attendance, for the most part, at one Thanksgiving celebration or another.

20 Practical Tips for Staying Sober at Thanksgiving 2020

#1. Be Diplomatic & Avoid Arguments

Quite understandably, you may be thinking that “be diplomatic and avoid arguments” is far easier written than actually done (and, no doubt, you’d be right). In fact, much of the advice given here is not easy to accomplish – for the simple reason that recovery from drug addiction (medically known as substance use disorder – SUD) or alcoholism (medically known as alcohol use disorder – AUD) isn’t easy to accomplish either.

Anyway, back to the tip (possibly the most important one provided here) – be diplomatic and avoid arguments. If substance abuse has directly affected a family, then there are likely specific past incidents or relatives in particular that could cause problems for a person in addiction recovery. Because of the nature of addiction, “family” may well even be one of its initial catalysts.

So, there’s nothing for it but to brace yourself for the inevitable. Seriously, if it’s between your sobriety or personal pride, choose your sobriety, and either don’t get involved or plain agree to disagree.

#2. Bring a Sober Buddy

Short and sweet (but highly effective, too). Families are far less likely to demonstrate their ugly and downright disrespectful side if there’s a stranger – your sober buddy – in the house, too. Additionally, you are each other’s vital morale-boost and sober support.

#3. Have Your Ready Response… Ready

Quite reasonably, you may well be dreading the “conversations” about your sobriety at the Thanksgiving table. Our advice to you is simple – have a ready response (either the truth or a fabricated story) for when the subject is raised. It also may be pertinent (and kind) to let your host know about your sobriety in advance, if they don’t know already.

#4. Eat at the Kids’ Table

Seriously – hanging out with the kids’ at their table may well ensure you get a better quality of conversation. What’s more, the children will think it’s funny, and love the idea.

#5. Practice Self-Care

Thanksgiving may be a time for reconnecting with family, but make sure you do not overextend yourself in the process. Therefore, it will pay dividends if you concentrate on your own self-care before the event (and afterwards, too). Exercise, proper nutrition, and quality sleep will get your well-being in perfect shape for the possible trials that lay ahead. The better you feel physically, the better you will feel emotionally.

#6. Have Your Support Network on Speed Dial

Your support network has been put together for a purpose – to assist you in those times when keeping your sobriety feels like the hardest thing on Earth to do. So, before heading off to Thanksgiving celebrations, ensure you have all of your network on speed dial. Call them if you need to.

#7. Take Frequent & Regular Timeouts

Remember, you are not chained to the Thanksgiving table (if you actually are, however, then maybe you really shouldn’t have gone in the first place). So, instead, take frequent timeouts, such as going for a walk, or just go outside and text your sober friends, and allow your head to clear.

#8.  Have Your “Exit Strategy”

If it all becomes simply too much, leave. Just leave. As we said earlier, if it’s between your sobriety or personal pride, choose your sobriety. You can have a ready reason for leaving handy  or just a made up excuse, such as meeting friends, or something else. It doesn’t matter. The only thing that does matter is your continued sobriety. Seriously, if things are starting to go badly, they will only get worse. Just leave.

#9. For Those Traveling Out of Town…

cIf you’re traveling to be with family, why not check out the local support meetings? One before the event, and then one after should see you safely home again.

#10. Try to Indulge Any Insulting Advice

Drunk people tend to be a little more “overt” in their unsolicited advice and their criticism of others, such as “Why haven’t you got a decent job yet?” and “You’ll always be an addict – why not just accept it, and have a drink with your Mom and Dad?” Witty replies or engaging forcefully is not going to do you any favors at all, so just smile politely and let them know you’re fine as you are. With luck, they’ll get bored and move on to a new target. Either way, don’t let it rile you or upset you.

#11. Anticipate Which of Your Triggers Might Appear

You are likely going to have a very clear picture of how the day and evening will pan out. Anticipate which triggers you might have to face, and remember how you’ve coped with them previously. Whatever the issue may be, it’s vitally important for you to be prepared to handle it once you’re there.

#12. The Power of the Mind

Our minds are extremely powerful beasts. Fast forward in time, and imagine that, in a few hours, it will all be over. The evening will be just a sad moment (hopefully, a quickly forgotten one) in your memory. You’ll still be sober, you’ll still be you, and you’ll go back to your normal recovery life.

Alternatively, simply pretend you’re watching someone else’s family. It won’t feel so embarrassing them…

#13. Focus on the Food for Feasting

Let’s be honest – one of the main reasons your family has gathered together is the food. So, enjoy your first home-cooked meal in a while, happily accept a leftover takeaway box if one’s offered, and leave content in the knowledge you’ve eaten well, and you won’t be the one feeling unwell in the bathroom tomorrow morning.

All of the previous tips have assumed you have not been able to excuse yourself from the family Thanksgiving dinner. However, just like many other people this year, not every person in recovery from either SUD or AUD may have been invited to the family table in the first place. As isolation and social distancing are considered “at-odds with recovery” and the fellowship of the recovery community, here are a few alternative options especially for you.

#14. Host Your Own Sober Thanksgiving

If you’re in addiction recovery, you can ensure your own sobriety stays intact by hosting your own sober Thanksgiving. Invite sober-only friends, or, if you’re inviting friends you know who are not tee-total, let them know in advance that it’s an alcohol-free get-together, so there’s no confusion on the actual day.

Additionally, with some forward planning, your sober Thanksgiving can be an awesome affair, complete with delicious, non-alcoholic seasonal mocktails, and so on.

#15. Think Up New Thanksgiving Traditions

Thanksgiving is a national tradition in the U.S. “Tradition,” by definition, is “the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation, or the fact of being passed on in this way.” Another way of looking at tradition is this: it’s not much more than continuous repetition.

So, without in mind, the yearly “binge drinking and getting drunk with a roasted turkey” scenario is just how it’s always been done. However, that’s not to say it can’t be done better… Or, if not better for some people, just differently. So, “why not think up and suggest new traditions for yourself?

Here’s a few ideas: the Thanksgiving wilderness hike, the whole family volunteering at a soup kitchen or food bank, fruit-picking, sightseeing… Your choice.

#. 16 Volunteer 

Now we’ve mentioned “volunteering,” it’s the right place to mention it again as its own tip. The true meaning of Thanksgiving, often forgotten once the beer caps get flicked off, is giving thanks. Both are verbs. So, take action: be grateful for your recovery, and be of service to others. Honestly, there is no better way to show how much of a gift true sobriety really is than by sharing that gift – your gift – with others.

#. 17 Give Spoken Thanks

If you’ve made it into recovery from your substance addiction, there is much to give actual thanks for. You didn’t get there on your own, so tell those who have been instrumental in your journey how grateful you are to them, for their love and support. When you were actively drinking or using drugs, these were the very people who stood by you. As you know, not everyone does. So let them know that they are loved and that you are especially grateful.

#18. Make a Blessings List

Yes, it’s an old phrase “to count your blessings,” maybe something your Mom used to say, but it’s still a good one. Sit down in a quiet moment, and write a list of how you have been blessed during your life, and, in particular, your recovery journey.

#19. Take Time to Chillax

Don’t forget to say thanks to yourself, too. You literally couldn’t have made it this far without your determination and resolve. So, take the time to chillax, and treat your mind and your body to a guided meditation, a yoga session, a workout, or something else that involves just being kind to you. 

#20. Go Online & Let Google “Work Its Magic”

Lastly, if you’re desperate to try something different, or you’re completely stuck for something to do, simply go online and let Google do its thing. Type “sober Thanksgiving events 2020 in Arizona,” for example, into the magical, mystical search bar, and see what comes up.

Here’s a glimpse of what you may find this Thanksgiving in Phoenix, AZ…

Happy Thanksgiving

Harvard’s 75-Year Happiness Study

Have you heard of the “Study of Adult Development” at the Harvard Medical School, better known as the “Grant Study”? It’s easily the longest-running study of human happiness. Beginning in 1938 as a contrast to the disease model of medicine, the ongoing research set out to find what exactly enhanced a person’s wellbeing, by following the lives of 268 healthy sophomores from the Harvard classes between the years 1939 and 1944.

It didn’t stop there, however – it just simply carried on.

“The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier.” – Professor. Robert Waldinger, MD, Harvard psychologist & Director of the Grant Study

(the latest of four generations of scientists working on the project)

Remember that this Thanksgiving – good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Of course, the reverse is also true – bad relationships don’t. In fact, why not watch Professor Waldinger’s fascinating TEDTalk on the Grant Study as part of your Thanksgiving?

If you are in any way concerned that this year’s family Thanksgiving “celebration” will be anything but, you really should consider not attending. As we mentioned earlier, if it’s between your sobriety or personal pride, choose your sobriety. Every time.


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WRITTEN BY GERARD BULLEN
NOVEMBER 25, 2020

Gerard has been writing exclusively for the U.S. substance addiction treatment industry for the last 4 years, providing a range of medically-reviewed work, including white papers, long-form and short-form content articles, and blog posts for accredited addiction treatment centers. A professional member of the American Medical Writers Association, Gerard’s specific focus is the field of substance addiction (an area that has impacted Gerard’s personal life in several ways), and he is particularly drawn to the topics of professional, evidence-based treatment, new and alternative therapies, and enabling readers to find their own sustainable, long-term recovery. Gerard lives and works in Maryland, U.S., he’s happily married, and a proud father, too. His interests include hiking with the family, reading fiction (from the classics to virtually all of the current NYT bestseller list), American and British film classics, and his beloved dogs, Toby and Coco, both rescued from the local pound.